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Judge grants Tlingit, Haida courts jurisdiction

Posted: November 1, 2011 - 8:53am

A Juneau Superior Court judge issued a ruling earlier last week that granted Tlingit and Haida Alaskan tribal courts jurisdiction to adjudicate child support for children who are members of the tribe.

Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, the plaintiffs in the case against the state, heralded the ruling as a victory in reaffirming the tribe's authority to handle its own family law cases.

"The Court's order reaffirms the Tribe's inherent jurisdiction to handle the full range of family law issues affecting its citizens, including the particular issue of child support for the benefit of tribal children," a recent statement from the group read.

The tribe, which was represented by Alaska Legal Services Corporation attorney Holly Handler, said the case was brought forth because the state of Alaska failed to honor tribal court support orders issued under the Central Council's Family Responsibility statute and federally recognized Tribal Child Support Program.

"As the lack of interagency cooperation negatively impacted families with tribal support orders, the tribe was left with little choice but to file suit seeking relief requiring the state of Alaska to recognize tribal child support orders under recognized principles of tribal sovereignty and Alaska's own Uniform Interstate Family Support Act," the statement read.

In a summary of the case, the Superior Court Judge Philip Pallenberg delineated a long history of "practical complications (that) are inevitable with system dual sovereignty."

In 1996, states were required to adopt the Uniform Interstate Family Support Act that recognizes child support orders from other states -- "states" being the key word. The UIFSA included tribes within the definition of states, but when Alaska adopted UIFSA in 1997, it dropped the language including tribes.

When Congress passed the law that encompassed UIFSA in 1996, it was required to enact the official version of UIFSA, which includes the Native tribe's language in its definition of "states."

The state of Alaska twice asked for an exception from that requirement in 2008, but was rejected both times by the federal Department of Health and Human Services. The state was also warned the second time that failure to comply with the language risked loss of more than $60 million in federal funds for needy children and families.

The Alaska Legislature amended UIFSA in 2009 to reflect the official definition of "states" that includes the tribal language, Pallenberg wrote, as they were faced with that threat.

The Legislature's intent was made clear in the amendment, however.

"In adopting UIFSA conforming amendments, the legislative intent is 1) to remain neutral on the issue of the underlying child support jurisdiction ... 2) not to expand or restrict the child support jurisdiction ... and 3) not to assume or express any opinion about whether those entities have child support jurisdiction in fact or in law," the text of the amendment read.

The state in its argument pointed out that UIFSA does not confer jurisdiction on tribal courts -- it only requires recognition of tribal court support orders if the tribal court has jurisdiction.

Which begs the question, "Does the Tlingit and Haida tribal court have jurisdiction to enter child support orders concerning children who are tribal members?"

Pallenberg said yes, based on a previous Alaska Supreme Court case that found tribes have jurisdiction over custody determinations.

"I conclude that this jurisdiction, to be meaningful, must extend to adjudication of child support," he wrote.

He elaborated, "In my view, (the Supreme Court case) John v. Baker confers jurisdiction on the tribal court to decide both custody and support. The tribal court does not forfeit its jurisdiction merely because it chooses not to decide issues of custody."

Pallenberg said he would issue an injunction requiring the state of Alaska, Child Support Services Department to comply with UIFSA and applicable federal and state regulations.

After the ruling was issued, the president of the Central Council of Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska, Edward Thomas, gave brief remarks and said, "This is a very important court ruling for our tribe's children. We will make every effort to work with the state of Alaska in carrying out our responsibilities to our Native families."

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